The now famous United Airlines debacle of a bloodied passenger being dragged off a plane will resurface in news stories about United for years. Virtually everyone has seen the video of the crisis, from school children to captain of industries and because of it, they are paying a lot more attention to United.
What could United have done better and how much damage has been done to their brand?
United could not have stopped the worldwide viral video from reaching a mass audience, however, it was the company’s reaction that moved them into the storm filled skies of negative public opinion. The morning after the incident, CEO Oscar Munoz sent a memo to employees saying “I also emphatically stand behind all of you” and apologized for having to simply “re-accommodate” the passenger. Even a first semester communications student could see that it didn’t matter if the passenger really was belligerent; there was video of his unconscious and bloody body being dragged off the plane. It took another full day in the PR crisis-vortex for Munoz to acknowledge the public’s revulsion at the video. Unfortunately for United, both Munoz and their initial response froze them into the amber of public opinion as a company who doesn’t give a damn about their customers.
The incident highlights a danger for all brands in how they respond to fast-moving incidents. The dragging video defined United and drew such big audiences that journalists and the public are now sensitized to anything negative about United.
Seventy two hours after Dr. Dao was dragged down the aisle, a scorpion fell on a passenger and stung him. This story would normally be relegated to the oddities news, but a good journalist can sniff out an audience, so it got worldwide coverage from news organizations like the BBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, CNN, the Associated Press, Reuters and The Washington Post.
Fast forward a few more days and broadcasts, banners and blogs led with headlines like Bride and Groom Booted Off United Flight from KHOU in Houston. It doesn’t matter that the couple was trying to grab a free upgrade and lied about being taken off the plane by Air Marshals — journalists were now hyper-focused on United and quickly reported another example of the airline screwing their passengers. They reported and viewers massively consumed the news.
This sensitivity from journalists to companies that have mishandled the PR surrounding a crisis needs to be a part of crisis communications planning, especially for (what should be) short lived stories. It highlights three things that all CEOs should know before their staff walks into their office.
- One Chance. Viral stories can move so quickly that a company sometimes gets a single chance to get their response right. Defining the situation and the company’s role in it needs to happen quickly and decisively or brands lose the ability to define rather than be defined. Moving this quickly can only happen with decisive leadership.
- Embrace the Obvious. United’s initial response to “Re-AccomoGate” should have been as obvious as “hey, the sun is rising”. United has an entire PR department and presumably several outside agencies, none of which saw that a beaten and bloody passenger would arouse the public’s sympathy and generate revulsion towards United.
- End the Crisis. Rule number one of crisis communications is to end the crisis. Instead of using the PR formula of Admit, Apologize and Fix, United took a series of actions that gave the story fresh legs. At first, United wouldn’t apologize, then CEO Oscar Munoz praised employees in the next news cycle. In subsequent days, United announced no one would be fired, then vowed to review crew booking policies, then changed the policies and finally apologized to investors. Each of these stories generated fresh news and kept the story going when they should have been trying to end it by putting everything out at once.